Viva citizen power

2011-12-31 00:00

ON a recent early morning walk I came across a scene that made me smile and wish I had a camera. A couple were working in the garden before the heat scorched its brand on their noses and chased them indoors.

Two people working in the garden isn’t an unusual sight, but these particular people and this specific garden made it noteworthy. They were a “mature” couple, well on in years, busy in a garden that was not theirs. They were working on municipal land opposite their property. The gentleman — I use the term advisedly as men of a certain age use it to describe themselves and their peers — was wearing an ancient pair of rugby shorts, a tatty shirt and a battered bush hat. He was pushing a petrol mower up and down a stretch of grass about the size of a soccer field. A not unremarkable feat for someone I judged to be in his seventies.

His wife was restoring some order to a flower bed so clogged with invasive weeds as to be unrecognisable. Clearly clad in her gardening clothes — too-big gumboots and a broad-brimmed hat flopping around her face like a faded flower  — she was digging out the alien hordes that had overrun what had once been an indigenous garden.

What this apparently arbitrary but sweet tale has to do with the start of a new year is simple: citizen power. In the year past we saw it erupt and spread with a speed and efficiency that caught some commentators by surprise.

The power of popular discontent and the social networking media came together in manifestations as diverse as the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement and environmental protests at the COP17 conference in Durban.

Citizen power is not only one of my top-10 stories of 2011, it is also one of those rare but desperately-needed oddities: a good news

story.

Fewer and fewer people want to read more stories on topics such as bribery, rape, acid water, power outages, Aids statistics, dysfunctional schools, traffic accidents, water cuts, rhino poaching, corrupt politicians, broken sewage plants, incompetent municipal officials, domestic violence, overflowing landfill sites or another sporting loss.

Few of us need to go looking for bad news because it comes looking for us, those we work with and those we care about, every day. More and more of us need good news stories like citizen power working for positive change whether in Cairo or Clarendon.

What that couple took on themselves to do is what we can all do in what the Seven Habits guru Steven Covey called “our sphere of influence”: stop cursing the darkness and light a candle by doing something constructive.

Yes, of course we shouldn’t have to mow the commonage, take our uncollected waste to the dump, shower at a friend’s house for the third night in a row, buy a generator, fix up the local school, organise a neighbourhood watch and give one another pothole repair kits for Christmas. As correspondents have pointed out many times in this newspaper, that’s what we pay rates and taxes for. I know that.

But I also know, based on what we all know about local, regional and national government, things are unlikely to change soon unless we, the citizenry, do something about it.

The major belief systems of this province’s residents share fundamental ethical principles: honesty, fairness, respect, concern for others and care for the earth.

And, as Gwynne Dyer reminded us (The Witness, December 23), morality does not equate with religion, so people of good conscience are not only those who profess some kind of faith.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

That is the challenge for 2012. Remembering what we saw citizen power do in 2011, imagine what it could do in this province if we are prepared to do our share.

As we contemplate a new year already said to be bringing natural and financial calamities, there is hope in the opportunity for people of good conscience to pause, reflect, and unite to work for a kinder, gentler nation.

By mobilising our citizen power we could revolutionise the wasteland of our corporate life just as that pair of senior citizens is quietly bringing some kind of order and civility to the municipal commonage opposite their home.

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